Sunday, June 24, 2012

heliotrope

This has come up a couple of times in my Finnegans Wake group. We're on a section featuring the rainbow girls, and heliotrope is one of their colors. I think. I looked it up the first time, and yes it was a color, but my interest gave out after that. Then it came up at the group meeting the other day in a different aspect entirely. Color? Region of the earth's atmosphere? Let's find out.

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Well, at its root, heliotrope merely means "sun turn". It follows that very common route from Greek heliotropion through Latin heliotropium and French héliotrope. Heliotropic plants are those that turn their leaves and flowers to the sun. Think sunflowers. There is a nice Old English word that means the same thing, turnsole, although this was eventually taken from the plant that had this property and applied to the dye extracted from it (and used for illuminated manuscripts).


Heliotropes actually are a whole genus of flowers, and many if not most of them are yellow. But for some reason, the color heliotrope is a pinkish purple one, and is taken from heliotropes of this hue. Heliotrope, as I probably should have remembered, is the correct answer to the guessing game in Finnegans Wake, and there are reportedly many clues within the text itself in the form of puns, anagrams and obscure allusions. Well of course there are--it's Joyce, after all.

There is also a mineral called heliotrope. It is often called bloodstone, as it often shows up with blood red specks in it. It gets the name heliotrope from it's reflective qualities rather than its color.  


But just when you're thinking we've turned a bit too far from the sun, we're turning back again. Because there is still another use of the word heliotrope. This is the surveyor's instrument that, using a mirror, reflects the rays of the sun over great distances. In this way it creates a target that would otherwise be too indistinct to see from afar. Heliotropes had their problems, ie, night and bad weather, but were very effective in many cases. In fact, during the 1874 Transit of Venus, several were taken to the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean to aid in the observations.

Wurdemann's heliotrope
Very steampunk.






23 comments:

  1. Seana

    The heliotrope was invented by the greatest mathematician of all time CF Gauss: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_Gauss

    Gauss of course prefigured the work of Einstein by inventing non Euclidean geometry and speculating that space itself might be curved. Its only a short leap from Einstein to quantum theory and hence to the famous "three quarks for muster mark" which Murray Gell-Man used from Finnegans Wake to name the quark. (And got the Nobel Prize for it, something that eluded JJ)

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  2. Yes, I came across Gauss in wandering around all this, but there is only so much you can fit in to a post like this. Besides,you have said more succinctly than I would.

    I don't think we can fault literary writers for not winning the Nobel, though. They don't always get this right.

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  3. Did you see this in the Gauss article:

    ”In University of California, Santa Cruz, in Crown College, a dormitory building is named after him.”
    =======================================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

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  4. No, I didn't, but it might be one resson his name is familiar.

    But my college was Cowell, and the dorms were named after American historians. I was in Prescott and Parkman.

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  5. Or maybe you lost your way to that dorm because you had trouble following directions in non-Euclidean space.

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  6. That would explain a lot, Peter.

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  7. Do students who live in Gauss do their binge drinking out of Klein bottles?

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  8. If so, they never offered me one. They do look pretty cool, though.

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  9. I had my first encounter with a Klein bottle when I was 12 or 13, and no, I was not drinking from it. I did a science presentation for school about topology.

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  10. Hmm. Well, the first possibility of doing a science project around fermentation was quite exciting to whatever grade level I happened to be in then.

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  11. I bet that possibility has led to giggles from generations of students and rolled eyes from just as many teachers.

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  12. So much depends on where we are on the continuum, doesn't it?

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  13. Leaving Klein bottles to one side (if one can speak of sides in non-Euclidean geometry), I think I may have photographed heliotropes (the flower) a time or two without, however, knowing what they were.

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  14. It seems likely, Peter. There are quite a few of them.

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  15. I remember taking pictures of such flowers in Hyde Park in London, and also at Salona, near Split in Croatia. Although I post photos from time to time on my blog, I don't think I've ever posted any flower shots. They fall so far short of the real thing.

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  16. Also, I suppose heliotropes are rarely used in crime fiction.

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  17. They could make a nice ironic counterpoint.

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  18. "Heliotrope" does sound like something that might crop up in a traditional mystery, doesn't it, or maybe in a novel by Umberto Eco.

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  19. Yep, either/or. Either the flowers would point to the murderer, or they would show up in Latin in an ancient text just before the library burns down...

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  20. Or someone stealing credit for breeding a new variety of heliotrope.

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  21. one could then turn to one of my fave flowers the good ole helianthus, or sunflower....and it looks like adrian has pipped me at the post with one of my fave instruments, the heliotrope!
    Great lil prefix and another great post!

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  22. Dan, I have to admit that I gave the heliotrope gadget short shrift, and particularly its inventor. Planning to rectify that a bit soon.

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